Courtesy of Carlos Sosa-Lombardo

When someone is released from state prison, the Connecticut Department of Corrections typically drops them off at the New Haven Green, the New Haven Police Department or sometimes even Dunkin’ Donuts. But now, Project M.O.R.E. — a local prison reentry assistance organization — is collaborating with the city government’s Project Fresh Start to create a center for people to come to after they have been released.

The center is located at Project M.O.R.E.’s main building on Grand Avenue in Fair Haven. It provides reentry resources to address the wide range of needs for those who have reached the end of their prison sentences. The center’s services include employment help, educational programming and assistance with public benefits. The first phase of the project began in June, after the COVID-19 pandemic created additional difficulties for recently incarcerated individuals reentering society, such as a lack of job opportunities. The pilot is now in Phase 2, with project leaders hoping to roll out the finalized program by mid-January.

“In the past, there was nothing for anyone that reached their end of sentence — you were just dropped off,” Project M.O.R.E Vice President Morris Moreland said. “Now we’re providing a service that can help someone that is at the end of their sentence versus [just] parole and community relief. This is a new opportunity to help everybody.”

Project M.O.R.E. was founded 45 years ago to connect ex-offenders with fresh opportunities, such as jobs. Since then, it has broadened its services to include transporting individuals to court hearings and running transitional housing centers for those who have been recently released from prison.

The city’s Project Fresh Start, headed by Director Carlos Sosa-Lombardo, similarly provides services to formerly incarcerated individuals. These range from fee waivers for Elm City Resident Cards to workshops about the pardon process.

But until now, such resources have not been accessible in one central location. Additionally, Moreland said that former prisoners were often dropped off on the street with inadequate resources and clothing, even in harsh winter weather. Moreland explained that the new reentry center is merging the efforts of multiple organizations working in reentry services, and is engaging with the formerly incarcerated population in a “wholesome” way.

“The bottom line is that we’re looking for this to be a one-stop shop for our clients,” Project M.O.R.E. President and CEO Dennis Daniels added.

Daniels, Moreland and Sosa-Lombardo joined a Fair Haven Community Management Team meeting on Nov. 5 and a Downtown-Wooster Square Community Management Team meeting Tuesday night to discuss the aims of the center. Sosa-Lombardo said it would overall result in positive outcomes for formerly incarcerated people in Connecticut, who often suffer from high rates of trauma after their time in prison.

At the Fair Haven meeting, Sosa-Lombardo shared statistics he had compiled from the state Department of Corrections. They revealed that 91 percent of returning ex-offenders have experienced substance abuse, 49 percent have a history of mental health and 75 percent have experienced homelessness before incarceration. 

Alex Guzhnay ’24, a Fair Haven resident and recording secretary of the Community Management Team, is one of many of the meeting attendees who lauded the reentry center. 

“There’s definitely a need to make a hub for formerly incarcerated people just so they’re not left out on the street and having bad things happen to them,” Guzhnay said. “It’s really great.” 

Sosa-Lombardo also pointed to the success of the Hartford reentry welcome center as a model for New Haven. 

The Hartford center was founded in 2018 and is run by the Connecticut organization Community Partners in Action. Similar to Project M.O.R.E., the group offers educational, housing, employment and substance abuse assistance.

According to a 2018-19 evaluation report by Diamond Research Consulting — a group that provides data services to social sector organizations — the Hartford center greatly aided those returning from incarceration with tangible goods that reduced the likelihood of post-release trauma, like clothing and cellphones.

“There was one person who came out prior to the center, went back [to prison] and came out [after] the center [was] in existence,” Elizabeth Hines, executive director of CPA-CT explained. “He said it was night and day: ‘It’s like from being hopeless to hopeful.’”

Similar to Hines, Moreland and Daniels stressed the importance of Department of Corrections officers walking clients into the building for a welcoming handoff — instead of leaving them on the street. After someone is dropped off at the center, Moreland said that Project M.O.R.E. case managers help reintroduce them to their families and guide them in a “positive” direction.

Daniels explained that the most important element for those coming out of prison is finding a job. He said that a lack of sustainable employment often leads ex-offenders to recommit crimes.

Now, Project M.O.R.E.’s center coordinates drop-offs with the Department of Corrections to take in about six end-of-sentence individuals on a weekly basis. Moreland told the News that the reentry center is in its infancy and that finding additional funding would be a challenge.

“We expect that Project M.O.R.E. will apply for philanthropic and federal grants — but those aren’t secured streams of funds,” Sosa-Lombardo added. “We hope that the state can implement a comprehensive justice reinvestment strategy that can sustain funds for this type of program.”

Still, the group’s leaders are optimistic about the future and hope to contract academics to measure the center’s successes and failures. According to Sosa-Lombardo, this will help continuously improve the program.

“I was incarcerated and I never thought that I would be on that side of the desk, helping somebody,” Roger Hines, Project M.O.R.E.’s Roger Everson supportive housing coordinator said. “I [still] keep up with a lot of the clients from my caseload from when I was a case manager.”

Project M.O.R.E. was founded in 1974.

Talat Aman | talat.aman@yale.edu